5 Ways to Make Textbooks Relevant in a Digital World

Textbooks are still crucial to the education process in developing countries.
Textbooks are still crucial to the education process in developing countries.

By Sungsup Ra, Shanti Jagannathan

Even as developing countries catch up on digital learning, the good old physical textbook should have a key role.

In 2009, the New York Times published an article titled: In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History. Since then, many have queried whether textbooks are needed in a digital world, given that extensive and often free on-line resources are now available.

The digital era has challenged conventional practices on textbooks. Should physical textbooks be replaced by packaged digital materials? With free on-line resources, should governments stop allocating budgets to textbooks? Are schools in developing countries using digital sources to improve learning?  

The answers to these questions are not binary, but depend on the development context of countries including their digital infrastructure availability, affordability and capacity. Even as developing countries catch up on the digital curve, the good old physical textbook cannot be debunked.  

Digital learning materials are indispensable in the modern era. But it’s just as important that they be supported by next-generation physical textbooks that guide and amplify their impact.

Here are 5 ways in which policy-makers can deliver textbooks that work with digital learning to boost student performance in developing countries.

1. Make textbooks more “real-time” to help navigate the curriculum.

Textbooks are still crucial to the education process, and provide a roadmap for grade and subject-specific learning attainments. A 2016 study by the Harvard Education Policy Research Center found high achievement gains for students using top-quality textbooks. 

The policy paper Why Textbooks Count by Cambridge Assessment was influential in bringing attention back to textbooks in England by finding that England’s poor performance in math compared to star performers like Finland and Singapore can be attributed to the fact that only 10% of teachers in England used textbooks.

 Textbooks are still crucial to the education process in developing countries

However, the pace of change calls for developing countries to ensure that textbooks are dynamic and updated faster to reflect guiding principles on knowledge and skills that are important for the future.

2. Blending digital resources with physical textbooks for the millennials.

Even advanced nations such as the Republic of Korea (which had an explicit target to go fully digital in textbooks by 2015) or the United States (where states like California and Texas favor digital books) have not yet gone fully digital.

But developing countries, even though faced with challenges on basics like teachers, classrooms and toilets, can and should blend videos, simulations, and multimedia materials with textbooks to meet the learning needs of current generation students.

The real power of digital resources lies in transforming how students are taught to make learning more suited to millennials in being interactive, personalized, and self-directed. 

3. Re-position the role of the teacher to go beyond textbooks.

The digital era has brought in diverse learning materials and tools. The teacher’s role today is to be a coach rather than simply a purveyor of knowledge. Next-generation textbooks promoting independent and project-based study demand teachers who are more proactive and creative.  

This is happening in Nepal, where ADB is helping the Curriculum Development Center develop online materials for teaching science, math and English in middle school so that teachers become adept in using e-content. In the a2i program in Bangladesh, teachers form an online community to create and share learning materials in the Teachers’ Portal.

In Bhutan and Sri Lanka ADB helped to pilot the ‘Math Cloud’ program, an adaptive learning tool which tailors the learning pathways to the specific level of each student. Teachers use the tool to help students at different stages of learning to master concepts through independent study.

 Real power of digital learning resources lies in transforming how students are taught

4. Invest jointly in next-generation textbooks and digital materials.

Some believe that with free online resources, governments can do away with textbooks and save money. The reality is quite the contrary. To upgrade static and old-fashioned textbooks, governments need to invest substantially in developing newer models of textbooks that are reliable and efficient navigating tools in a digital world, and which can also be paired with their digital twins.

The developing world faces many paradoxes – it is not uncommon to find a well-resourced school with smart classrooms and digital resources in an urban setting and traveling two hours away, see a rural school without proper classrooms, electricity and teachers. Budget allocations from government need to cater to the different realities.

Continued need for high-quality textbooks and digital learning tools and systems call for more rather than less investment by governments.

5. Improve school connectivity for multiple sources of on-line learning.

Computers began to permeate the school during the ICT era. But now the game-changer is connectivity. In Nepal, which is implementing a $6.4 billion School Sector Development Plan (in partnership with ADB and other development partners), only 4,000 of about 32,000 schools have connectivity.

Better connectivity is a must. It opens the way for e-libraries and e-learning platforms to be established to supplement textbooks and update schools on latest educational trends and innovative teaching methods.

The role of textbooks is even more relevant in the digital world.  They can provide an underlying blueprint to help navigate the vast jungle of open resources and online materials to attain specific learning goals.

But we must innovate and re-position textbook policy and practice for the global digital era. Only then can digital resources and technology tools be integrated with textbook content to improve student learning.